History of Stereography and Stereo cards
Stereography began with stereoscopy — the concept that our eyes see slightly different images, which our brain combines into one 3D image. Charles Wheatstone first demonstrated the concept in 1838 (Gernsheim 253-254). Intrigued by the daguerrotype, he commissioned Beard and Claudet to take stereographic portraits of Charles Babbage (Gernsheim 254). Louis-Jules Duboscq’s luxury telescope caught Queen Victoria’s eye at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and stereoviews became immensely popular throughout the 1850s and 60s (Gernsheim 255).
The introduction of wet-plate processing popularized the medium further, making it possible to mass produce stereoviews and sell them for much cheaper thn before (Gernsheim 256). Popularity declined in the 1870s and early 1880s (due to the increasingly popular cartes de visite) before enjoying a revival in the 1890s (Ritzenhaler 259). This revival, driven by hobby enthusiasts and “Stereoscopic Societies” in England and America (Lenman n.p.), lasted into the earliest years of the 20th century. However, it petered out by the end of the First World War (Gernsheim 259).
Stereoviews are precursors to modern forms of 3D entertainment, including 3D movies, “wigglegrams,” popular photogrammetry, and other 3D animated GIFs. Today, they are held in both private, university, and public collections.
Production and Distribution
The earliest stereoviews were taken with a single lens camera moved between photographs to simulate binocular vision (Lenman n.p.). Later, stereographers used double lens cameras specifically for taking stereoviews(Lenman n.p.). There were also several attempts to create smaller stereographic cameras, or cameras with built-in chemical processing (Gernsheim 261-262), presumably to lighten a photographer’s load while travelling.
It was common practice to commission and/or import stereoviews (Lenman n.p.). Photographers sometimes travelled large distances, including to the Americas and the Middle East (Lenman n.p.). Stereoviews were sold commercially and in massive quantities: the London Stereoscopic Company (1854), for example, produced half a million stereoscopic viewers in 2 years and had 100 000 subjects in stock by 1858 (Lenman n.p.). Stereoviews were also popular in Paris and the United States. Notable American distributors included the Langenheim brothers, Southworth and Hawes and E. & H. T. Anthony (Lenman n.p.).
Use, Audience and Reception
19th century and early 20th century photographers took photographs for the same reasons we do today — for example, to experience something otherwise beyond or our reach or memorialize important events or places. Stereoviews are closely linked to tourism and many of them show landscapes or landmarks, cityscapes, or “exotic” locations or peoples. As new technologies decreased exposure time, photographers also recorded important events. The latter sometimes bleeded into what we might consider a very early form of photographic journalism. Portraiture was also a popular subgenre of stereography.
The audience for stereoviews was the general public for leisure purposes. In this way, they were part of a social change that saw photography as democratizing since art was no longer only available to those who could afford paintings or portraits (Gernsheim 257). David Brewster championed the stereoview as educational, arguing that it offered a more “truthful” form of instruction than other images (Gernsheim 257). Viewing stereoviews was both a private and a public activity. The London Stereoscopic Company’s motto was “No Home without a Stereoscope” and people often viewed their purchases in the comfort of their own homes (Lenman n.p.). Meanwhile, inventions like the Kaiserpanorama allowed multiple people to simultaneously look at the same stereoview (Lenman n.p.).
As stereoviews became increasingly popular, they were also seen as a vulgar pursuit. Stereoviews were “the poor man’s gallery” that often included suggestive content, jokes or social commentary and staged scenes (Gernsheim 258). The stereoscope also became associated with erotic and pornographic imagery during the 19th century (Crary 127).